What to do About Relapse after Rehab

What to do About Relapse after Rehab


One of the biggest problems in the treatment industry has to do with post-treatment. What happens when you send the struggling alcoholic back into the world? Nine times out of ten they have relapsed within a year. Unfortunate, yes. But is this the fault of the treatment center? Not necessarily.

Recovery is a difficult situation to begin with. Relapse seems to be a fairly natural part of the process for most people. This does not mean that no one can ever achieve long term sobriety though. Of course many people do. But if you interview such people who have achieved long term recovery, many of them will describe a difficult beginning in which they struggled and relapses numerous times. There are a few exceptions to this of course, but not very many. Most people stumble a few times before they finally “get it.”

So the question becomes: “What do you do about relapse?” If it is going to happen post treatment, what is your plan to deal with it if it does?”

My first and most important suggestion is this:

Do not assume you are going to relapse. That is a mistake and you are just borrowing an excuse to go out and drink. Assume instead that you will remain sober (just for today, of course!). But don’t give yourself permission to relapse just because it is statistically probable. I have been clean and sober for 12 plus years now. Was that likely to happen? Not if you look at the data. Statistically I could have very well relapsed by now. But I have been blessed with sobriety and I continue to enjoy more and more recovery. So why jinx myself and say that I should have relapsed by now, you know? Why borrow trouble from the future? Why give myself permission to screw up? That makes no sense.

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Instead, simply be grateful that you are sober, and that you are experiencing the gift of recovery. Always focus on gratitude. See how much you can incorporate gratitude into your daily practice. Be grateful for every single day of recovery that you are given.

Your first step to take if you relapse after leaving rehab

If you relapse after leaving treatment then your first step is to get yourself back on track as quickly as possible. This is important for a number of reasons:

1) The longer you stay relapsed, the harder it is to pull yourself out of it. Every day that you continue to just let it all slide and continue to drink makes it that much harder to correct it and get back on the horse.

2) Relapse can be particularly dangerous because your disease accelerates. Things get worse very quickly. Your alcohol consumption will spiral out of control and your tolerance will go crazy. This is a function of the disease. It can make it much more likely that you will overdose or have some sort of accident due to your drinking.

3) The longer you drink after a relapse the more you will isolate. Isolation will make it that much harder to get the help that you need.

4) The guilt and the shame that you feel from a relapse will grow and intensify over time. It will keep getting worse and that will drive you further and further into the disease of addiction.

So the key is that you need to take action quickly after a relapse. If you wait too long to react to the problem then it is just like the first time that you tried to pull yourself out of addiction. You lose all of the advantages that you had in being sober for a brief time. Everything slides back to the old disease, to the old you. Your disease will quickly erase all of the progress that you may have just made during your short trip in sobriety.

The best thing to do is to tell someone that you relapsed. If you keep it a secret then everything is working against you. Not only will you be hurting yourself by keeping it a secret, but you will also be driving further shame and guilt in your life that will only be pushing you to keep drinking more and more. Secrets and relapse go very well together, and they feed off each other. It is a negative cycle that you must break free from as quickly as possible. The way to break free is to tell someone about your relapse. Don’t keep it a secret.

Now if you tell someone about your relapse who loves and cares about you then they are going to try to get you to seek help again. It makes no difference that you just got out of rehab and you had 28 days sober. Obviously you need more help than that. Obviously the timing was not perfect on your first try. Obviously you need to take more action, do something different, try again, try harder…..something.

So the obvious solution is to simply go back to rehab. Try again. Do it over. If at first you don’t succeed….

Many people have far too much guilt and shame to go right back into treatment. They are ashamed of the fact that they relapsed. They met a lot of people in rehab and they feel like they have let them all down. They are afraid to see the counselors and therapists again and look them in the eye.

This is what you have to get past if you want to heal post-relapse. You must work through the guilt and the shame.

How to work through the shame and the guilt quickly

The first step in working through guilt and shame is to share your burden with someone else. This goes along with the idea of telling someone else your “secret” of having relapsed.

What you might do is to go to an AA meeting and explain your situation. If the chairperson asks for a topic at the beginning, try to speak up quickly and tell people what your situation is. Seriously, this is a powerful way to work through your situation and get pointed in the right direction.

If you do this then what will happen is that everyone at the meeting will speak about your situation and give you advice. Many of the people around that AA meeting will have been in your exact situation before. So their advice will be especially valuable and you will learn a great deal by listening to it. Overall the group will most likely urge you to take massive action, either by coming back to meetings and not drinking in between meetings, or by going back to rehab to get a solid start on your recovery. At any rate they will try to convince you to “get back up on the horse,” so to speak. To give recovery another chance.

If you cannot convince yourself to go to an AA meeting and confess what has happened, then try to convince yourself to call up the rehab center that you just left and confess it to them. They will try to advise you and hopefully they will arrange for you to come back if that is possible. Otherwise they may try to refer you to another treatment provider. At any rate they will try to get you to the help that you need.

The key is always in action. Recovery is a process. You have to engage in the process in order to get good results. So if you want to remain clean and sober then you need to work every day for it. Sobriety is not an event. If it were then there would be no risk of relapse after treatment. No one would ever have to try to get sober a second or third or fourth time.

I finally got sober on the third try. I had to go to three rehabs. That means that I relapsed twice after treatment. But it finally clicked for me and I was able to enjoy a life of sobriety. But it took a lot of work. You have to be willing to do the work.

Your attitude towards aftercare can make or break your recovery

One of the biggest indicators of potential success in recovery is your attitude towards aftercare.

I know this to be true because I went to 2 rehabs and then relapsed after. Why did I relapse? Because I did not follow through.

And why did I not follow through? Because I was not willing to engage in the process of recovery. I was not willing to follow through on my aftercare recommendations. The rehab was telling me what to do in order to remain sober, and I was not willing to do it.

My attitude was all wrong. I expected recovery to be an event rather than a process. I thought: If I am going to spend 28 days in rehab then I had darn well better be fully cured by the time I walk out of there!

This is not realistic. This is not how recovery works. Everything is process. Recovery is an ongoing process. Even after a full year of sobriety you will still be learning things every single day about yourself, about life, about the recovery process. Here I am at 12+ years sober and I am still learning more and more about myself and about how I live best in recovery. It is a continuous learning process. I am still learning even after a decade of this stuff.

So your attitude when you leave rehab should reflect this. Do not expect to walk out of rehab and just suddenly be magically transformed. Expect it to be a lot of hard work.

Do you think it is reasonable to go to an AA meeting every single day for the first 90 days of your recovery? What about going to 1,950+ meetings over the first 2,000 days of your recovery? That latter is what my sponsor basically has done. He almost never missed a day, even after 7+ years in recovery. Now he is at more like 20 years sober and he still goes to meetings almost every single day. The guy just has a great attitude towards recovery and helping others. Obviously he does not need to make a meeting every day in order to sustain his recovery. But he keeps going because he wants to give back.

And this is part of that attitude shift that you may need to make regarding your aftercare. If they recommend that you go to meetings or get a sponsor or go to therapy then you need to do it. But you need to be desperate to do it. You need to embrace it. You need to have the right attitude towards your aftercare or you are never going to follow through with it.

The right attitude comes from willingness. Having willingness comes from desperation and being willing to change. If you hit bottom then you are more likely to have this level of willingness that you need.

For some people, a relapse is exactly the “kick in the pants” that they need in order to get motivated in recovery.

How to stay involved with your recovery and prevent relapse in the future

Obviously you have to start with the right attitude when leaving rehab. If you have a bad attitude then it is not going to matter what you do or what actions you try to take because you are just going to sabotage your own efforts.

But once you have the right attitude then it is simply a matter of reaching out for help and taking action. The rehab will probably suggest that you go to your first AA meeting immediately after leaving treatment. Certainly the same day that you walk out of rehab. Do this. Follow through. Go to your first meeting.

In addition to this, tell the people at that first outside AA meeting that you just left rehab that morning and that you are starting on your first day out in the real world. Let them see the real you. Let them know that you are just a baby in recovery. Many of them will try to help you. If you do this at any random AA meeting then it is likely that someone will offer to help you after the meeting. Someone may even offer to be your sponsor.

Another strong suggestion is that you force yourself to ask someone at your first AA meeting to be your sponsor. This can be a nerve wracking process but it could be the key that allows you to stay sober. Forcing yourself to speak up and connect with someone who would be willing to guide you can be extremely valuable to your recovery. Ask yourself this: In the past, did you work closely with a sponsor in recovery? If not, then it is time to try something different. Ask someone to sponsor you at your very first meeting on the very same day that you walk out of treatment. Start your sobriety off strong. Get help immediately.

Remember that your journey of sobriety really only begins on the day that you leave rehab. That is when the real challenge begins. Everything up until that point is merely preparation.

Embracing process post-treatment

You need a healthy routine post-treatment.

Everything in recovery is process. If you are not taking positive action every single day then you are headed for relapse. Therefore it will help you a great deal to get a routine going.

This routine could involve many different things. In the beginning you should rely mostly on suggestions from other people in order to find out what your actions should be.

If you ask your sponsor, AA meetings, and others in recovery what you should be doing as part of your routine, you may hear suggestions like:

* Go to an AA meeting every day.
* Call your sponsor every day.
* Write in a daily journal.
* Write in the steps. Work on the steps.
* Read recovery literature daily.
* Read a daily meditation book.
* Pray or meditate daily.

And so on. If you start taking these suggestions and following through with them then eventually you will be living in the process of recovery. Now sobriety becomes a daily goal that you strive to attain. You are embracing the process rather than seeing recovery as a one time event.

Developing your daily practice in recovery

As you embrace the recovery process you will start to learn more and more about yourself.

For example, I discovered that AA meetings were helpful in the beginning for me but over time their value started to drop. I found other things in my recovery that were serving me better than the daily AA meeting. So I adjusted my approach to recovery and I started experimenting with new actions. Eventually I found that an hour of exercise every day was doing more for me than the AA meeting was.

Could you do both (exercise and daily meetings)? Sure you could. And that is what you must balance in long term recovery. What daily actions you are going to take each day in order to stay clean and sober.

You only have so many hours in each day with which to work on your recovery. Obviously you want to make recovery a priority. So in early recovery you would do well to simply take suggestions from others and hit lots of meetings, talk to your sponsor daily, and so on. But as you evolve in recovery you will start to spread your wings a bit. You will learn what is truly helping you to grow and what is not.

Ultimately your recovery process and all of those suggestions that you take in early recovery will become part of your daily routine in long term sobriety. You will become what you do every day. Thus you must refine your daily practice over time so that you are getting the results you want.

This is a process. You start out in early recovery. You take suggestions. They tell you to go to meetings. The tell you to get a sponsor. They tell you to read the literature and write in the steps. So you start doing these things and then you see where your life is headed. Maybe you like the general results (of sobriety) but you still want something different than what you are getting in life. Thus, you need to adjust your daily process. You need to change the actions that you are taking every day so that in the future you get the results that you want. We become what we do each day.

Never is this more important (“we become what we do each day”) then in the days following treatment. If you relapse then it is your job to get immediately back up on the horse as quickly as possible. You are either working on recovery or you are working on your disease. You cannot embrace the process of recovery while still living in the disease each day. Sobriety and recovery are very polarizing. It is either one or the other. Therefore you must decide what your goal is and what you want your outcome to be (sobriety or relapse). Once you get clear on your goal then it is time to take action. If you have recently relapsed the action that you need to take it clear:

1) Tell someone your secret.
2) Ask for help.
3) Get back on the right track (go back to rehab).
4) Start embracing the process of recovery (daily action).

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